Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Himalayan Dream

         I had seen the seas, the desert (Yes, I consider Talakadu as desert), the mountains, the forests and waterfalls. What I had never set foot on was the snow-lands. I always dreamt of experiencing snowfall and walk on them and waited 35 years of my life for it. And then there was another dream. The dream of visiting the Taj. Just like how Bangalore is represented by Vidhana Soudha , India is represented by TajMahal ( whether you like it or not). It wasn't really in the bucket list as I never thought I will visit it. It was just a dream.


        And then it happened. A trip was planned. With a mammoth sixteen member group and before I knew it I was in New Delhi. I could not believe the trip had started until I reached the capital of India. Yes , this was happening. And I was a part of it !

The preparation :
        Since one of our team-member had been to the trek before, he had given us a general idea on what to expect. More precisely scared me to death. It was on the lines of you are not fit enough and you will never be able to conquer it. So forcefully I had stared walking eleven stories of my office building everyday ( From Jan 1, 2019 which I continued as long as I had office in Mar 2020) and thirty minutes of exercise everyday. And I felt this was not enough. 
        I wasn't too worried about the cold, since I had been to Finland some months back and was mentally prepared. The hike team had shared the "must have" things. So I was ready with the torch, poncho, thermos , energy bar etc. Had shoes from Oulu trip and borrowed Jerkin from my childhood friend.

Delhi Airport :
        Nothing much to write about the Airport as such as its like any other airport. The Suryanamaskar statues and the Mudras being the highlighted showpieces What was interesting was to see the immediate transformation of the girls after landing. While we waiting at the baggage counter ,the ladies went to "freshen up" and it was the most drastic "freshen up" I had ever seen. They had completely transformed themselves.
Each looked so different. Delhi had started its magic. Guys though had only washed their face and come out. Not so much magic afterall.

Delhi Metro :
        The first thing that struck me about Delhi was the awesome connectivity of  metro trains. Other than covering the last mile via walk/auto/cab( to tourist places) almost all our travel over Delhi was using the metro. Yellow, Blue, Red purple lines were confusing , fun and tiring to keep track . Best part was when buying tickets ( no pass, we bought them every time we took a ride) for sixteen members. The issuing guy would look up to confirm ,"16?" everytime. Sixteen tokens collected and then sharing with all became a routine. 
        What was not fun was carrying that bulky luggage all the way across all railway-stations and metro stations and we did it a lot. Only once we felt cheated when they overcharged us for a trip ( probably  knowing we would not check) . We checked it later in the train and found it out but could not do anything. Getting into metro with luggage was another pain and needed a bit of planning. And that one time I was lost talking to this guy that we missed our stop, got down at next station. Took a return train and pretended that it was planned and we went to meet a friend. And flopped.

Zostel :
Since we had not had booking till night, we had to dump our luggage at their store room which was stuffed with what looked like excessive luggage. Not really, because there were twelve people and 24 bags were expected. The place was cozy enough with nice place to chill and chat. Broken billiards table silently laughed at us. We found that one of the persons who was about to join from Hyderabad and had missed her flight would not be able to join our Agra trip. So gave her details on phone while we left.

Train to Agra :
        An usual fun filled train journey. Since we did not have proper sleep overnight, got some time to relax. And you know..UNO.

Agra station to the Taj :
        One place where everyone needs to be alert is after you come out of the station. Every cab driver pounces on you like hungry vultures that you literally panic. They don't allow you to relax and think properly. You need to go to a calm place, gather yourself, plan and then start looking for options. Vehicles were hired to reach the venue. And then there is a chota scam. You need to hire another mini-train to reach the ticket+ luggage counter.

De Dhana Dhan :
        After all luggage drama was done, there was one drama we were not prepared for. Ladies in our gang found our some random guys clicking pictures of them. They were caught red handed, and after a round of fight we surrendered them to the local police. Not a good way to start the trip but what was impressive was the grit of the girls.

TAJ MAHAL :    
        A dream come true moment. Goosebumps when you first saw the great monument. That feel of WOW !!
 Taj Mahal is indeed beautiful. And huge. I wonder how it looks like on a full moon night! The river behind it is another bonus to its beauty. Yes there was huge crowd, but that did not stop any of us from clicking lots and lots of pics from every angle. Everyone had turned into models. So much so that one girl in our gang got herself photographed for free from a professional photographer there because the camera was ours. 

Agra Market :
        Hired auto to reach Agra market but the auto guy insisted on a detour towards his favorite shops( where he gets commission) for no extra fare. It worked out for him as we did buy some things from there. As the auto guy predicted, the market which we had to reach was a dampener. There were nothing but branded shops which none of us were interested in. The only good thing that came out of it was the awesome Omelette Pizza we had at a local cart.

Back to Zostel :
        Back to Delhi and we got rooms this time. Pretty decent ones. The girl-who-missed-the-flight was there, in some room , sleeping, hiding behind the blanket, regretting for missing the flight.

Early Morning Chai /Breakfast
        While others got ready, some of us decided to get local chai from the streets of Delhi. And then all went in search of some place which guaranteed better breakfast. Found some dingy place but at-least the food was better and cheaper.

Lotus Temple : 
        Nothing extraordinary but a must-visit place as its that famous. Fifteen minutes meditation + Photos + Slomo videos + tender coconut and we were off.

Qutb Minar :
        This time it was the ladies who stood in the queue to get tickets ( the queue was relatively smaller) . And the first time in the trip : Biryani was had! Another important landmark of India ticked off my list. Other than the Minar itself there were other photogenic places too. That never-rusting Iron pillar was seen and marveled. Should look up the history and importance of that place though. Never occurred to me while I was there.

Over to Kathgodam :
        Yet again , pack bags, drag it all trough the Delhi streets and metro bridges to reach the railway station. While I did struggle, I also was surprised how that thin girl carried all those heavy luggage across with no help.
Old Delhi Railway station. Found that one of the tracks were closed as a new train was being announced by Modi that day. Some went in search of blankets for the night and I went to get Roti/Puri sabzi parcel. By the time we returned, one girl had become a tailor who had taken out her sewing needles and had started mending something. Train arrived, we got in and it was here we met the famous "Last benchers" for the first time. The gang was distributed into small groups of three and four based on reservation. After greeting we had our share of food , a small orange-related fight where I saw this girl lying to someone for the first time and could see how uncomfortable she was with lying to someone while I could do it easily with a straight face.( Yes I am guilty of that) . 

Kathgodam -> Lohajung
            One tempo-traveller and one Bolero. Mallu gang and Swathi in Bolero. All others in TT. Stopped at some random beautiful spot for breakfast. Maggi/Paratha and delayed sandwich was had. The climate was so cold that everything freezes milliseconds after serving. For the first time had a proper talk with the other people whom I had not met before this trip. One member's stomach was upset. Had to do with curd-rice and stuff all through
And then the tea-break where we ate some local bread along the bonfire. Swathi opened some homemade snacks for the first time in this trip. For the rest of the journey I was the DJ. No one complained about the songs probably because people were tired and wanted to reach the destination as soon as possible.

Lohajung :
        Chilling. The teeth danced in our mouth. We all shook like a mobile on vibrator mode. Met Mr.Negi and friends. Very friendly people. Since we all knew each other there was no customary introduction session. We were told to roam around and get accustomed to the climate. We walked a bit. Hired all the hiking stuff. And then we danced and danced. Had a good non-veg meal and one small session of Zumba . Went to sleep.
Tomorrow is gonna be a big day.

The Brahmatal Trek:
        The most anticipated part of the trip was here. After morning breakfast we were all set. A long line of seventeen people ( sixteen of us plus Negi). We started hiking with the bluetooth-speaker-owner as the leader and Negi at the end. With full enthusiasm. And then just 500m later some people started huffing and puffing. Acting as if they have already mounted the Everest and cannot go further.

        It needed a lot of motivation to get them moving. It was only a matter of body warming up and then the rest would be easy. Bluetooth speaker was started with that all-remix-semi-songs-in-my-playlist being the DJ. The songs ended as soon as they started. The beats stayed the same. Many mules carrying extra luggage and other things required for cooking on top kept moving up and down the hill. It turned out to be an easy hike of three kilometers. Our first pit stop.
        I was a tad disappointed to see that where was no snow yet. I could see snow clad mountains far away but I was not on one of them. Once we reached our destination, there was nothing else to do. No mobile meant we were forced to enjoy nature and talk to each other which we did. UNO, dumb-charades were played. Good food was had and spent some quite time with nature. There was this girl who took pictures just like how a google street car would. Tons of selfies with every inch of hill as background. 
        The most awkward part was the makeshift toilet setup. Negi had found a worst place to put our washroom tent that it took some great skills to actually even reach it. I tried reaching it and then announced that this is not going to be comfortable. So we found another Ok-ish spot and got the temporary toilet moved.
        Went for a casual walk and it was there we saw some snow. So played,fell and photographed a bit .Came back to our tents. It was getting colder and colder and darker. So another session of dancing started. This time with a difference. Since we had to save our power-banks, we decided to sing our song ourselves. We were pathetic in that but who cared ! The best part was everyone in the team were involved. It was the best way to keep ourselves warm. Dinner and we almost reached our tent to sleep until we realized we could play another round of UNO which turned out to be many rounds till late night.Sleeping in a sleeping bag was the first time experience for me. A totally different experience.

Day 2 : Bekaltal
        I woke up quite early and it was very cold. I had a peek outside and the scene was surreal !!. The entire landscape had turned white. It had snowed. IT HAD SNOWED !! I was finally in a magical winter-land. Yet another dream come true. I leapt out of the bed and was outside in a jiffy. I wanted to enjoy that moment. When there was no one around. As people walked the snow vanished and it was back to being a grassland. We took some time enjoying nature, timelapse of sunrise was taken. This one girl decided she had to brush no matter what and used this icy cold water for the same. God save her teeth. Had a chat with that pardesi lady who has already traveled 26 countries. That's the highest I have ever known someone to visit. 
         That awkward washroom business was done and then we started our second leg of trek. It was soon turning out to be a regular trek. No snow only trail.Same routine followed. A long line of people. Bluetooth playing songs. And surprisingly the same order in which we started trekking. Looked like we were comfortable with the order. Small waterfalls, many photographs, giving way to many mules going up and down with heavy luggage and wet trails later it happened : The plain trail got converted into snow trail. The snow clad mountains were near. Snow everywhere with a small path to walk in between. Finally I got what I wanted. A Himalayan trekking feel !
My enthusiasm got multiplied. Life just got renewed. Every step since then was magical. We got chatty. Some started singing songs. After hours of walk we reached pitstop two.

Day 3 : Bekaltal
        One big plane surface . Hill on one side and valley on the other. One trekking group tents on one side and other trekking group tents on the other. As if a war was declared. Now that I think back, I cant find a reason on why we did not go and talk to those guys. Might be our group was so huge already that we need no one else. There was white everywhere we looked . Except upwards. Until it started to snow. For the first time ever in my life I was experiencing such a snow fall. We all went mad dancing in the snow, clicking pictures. No one wanted to miss this moment.  A small walk to a nearby "frozen" lake was the only time we left our zone. All that we did was photography, playing in the snow , playing UNO, hand-cricket , eat and roam for the rest of the day. Late evening we sat by the fire in that congested,deserted hut in between with water dripping from top. Some of them even dried their wet socks there. It would later smell of smoke ! One girl got fever and this guy-with-the-pills gave her the right medication all the way. I wanted to do star-trail photography as there was almost zero light pollution but then the cloudy weather meant no stars could be seen.

Day 4 : Bekaltal -> Brahmatal
        The biggest day of the trip was here.The trek to the summit. 
There was heavy snowfall all night. So much that our dining place tent had crashed and had to be re-setup. Though I am generally scared of dogs I did make friends with that mountain dog that had followed our group. Just enough friendship to take a photograph with it.  The makeshift toilet was already smelly so a couple of guys silently found  a scheduled place somewhere where no one would come to shit. Openly. After breakfast we started to walk. And walk and walk. Amidst all the whiteness and the cold winds. One single line. Each motivating the other. Step by step conquering the great mountain. This was the most beautiful part of the trek. Everything looked so pure, so unadulterated., so peaceful. Special mention about the backbenchers who kept those two slow-coach girls moving every-time they were about to give up. After hours of walking we finally reached the summit. Jhandi Top. There was loud cheering , clapping and roar of victory. This still remains one of the most memorable moments of my life.
                And then we all went quite. To absorb what we were really there for. The white snow. Complete silence. Your breath. The chill . You were one with the mountains then. 

        A group photo session later, the descent started. Food met us half way. One mannequin challenge was done where the organizers too took part. It was quite easy and I never wanted it to end. So the only way to make the trek last longer was to switch places and go towards the end of the line. The ground was slippery, many slipped and fell on their trails.. Some of them multiple times. After we came back we decided to climb that small minihill near our tents. Again photography sessions later, as we were coming back we saw a person sliding down the hill with is air-bed. Seeing our group he casually asked if we wanted to try it. And what a reaction he got :  most of them wanted to try.
        I went first. Carried this thing towards the top not knowing the impending fear. It was only when I reached the spot and saw the slope I realized how foolish I was to accept this. But now I was here. After words of encouragement by others I took that slide of faith. One hell of a ride it was..swooshing down the slope at that speed..IT WAS BREATHTAKING. Others too tried. Sitting, sleeping crash-landing.
        And that was it. The end to the snowy fairy-tale. We packed the next day and got down. Since we knew the distance to be taken we kept our own pace. I was the DJ now. Playing all the songs on my playlist, mixing all language songs, discussing music and already getting nostalgic about the trek.
        Reached the starting point. A few of us went for a walk around the village till its border. Sat near some random bonfire place where the owner was gracious enough to give us space and added more wood to keep us warm. We got our certificates.The only other stupid thing I did that day was to have a super cold water bath in that cold weather !! It was 4 days since we had a bath so I could not wait any longer. Four layers of clothings for four days, how could I wait any longer. Only after I came out they announced that hotwater was available on demand !
        Again then we played UNO with most number of players ever. Sad that I decided to miss that and not make it to the Guinness book of world records.

Lohajung to Rishikesh
        This was one of the most tiring, enchanting, different journeys ever. Starting with a landslide ( or should I say hill slide) blocking our way thus forcing us to eat at a local hotel where our driver magically turned into a chef and started preparing paranthas to watching trees that had fruits that looked like a bird to the in-between exchange of vehicles where we were given a new driver who seemed to be more of a racer than a driver. All the way you could see monstrous hills and deep valleys while your treaded precariously in the narrow roads holding on to your dear life. The Tom and Jerry of our gang were still fighting over names of orange varieties and finding the root-cause of how these hills had their shape, the driver was still not listening to our "please slow down" chants nor was ready to stop at restaurant we wanted.I tied myself to the seat with some random thread. The biggest moment of that journey was watching the confluence of Alaknanda and Mandakini river from the top. Goosebumps guaranteed. 
     Light years later we reached yet another magical, mythical city : Rishikesh

Rishikesh
        I have still not figured out what charm that city had. Even after so many months it still enchants me. Just the thought of the place makes me happy and many of the trip gang members have shared the same feeling. 
There are some places that connect with you instantly and stay with you long after you have left. Rishikesh is one such place for me. The connect probably started at Rudraprayag where I saw the point of confluence of rivers Alaknanda and Mandakini. We stayed in Rishikesh for only a day but seemed like a lifetime. Might be because of my insane bungee jumping effort (read about it here: http://mystery-of-my-spirit.blogspot.com/2019/03/the-leap-of-faith.html)  or the river rafting at the Ganges or that Biryani we savoured at some bylane in the town or the gorgeous temple along the Ganges or the Ram Jhula or the river Ganga itself. There was something extremely positive about that place.When I left I vowed that I will return here again. But now I feel I should never go back again. I fear I might not feel the same again and that might just break my heart.
What if the magic isn’t there.
What if it isn’t that awesome afterall.
What if, what if , what if.
I would rather die thinking that it was one of the most impactful places I have ever visited.
Rishikesh is one such place which I will stay disconnected geographically but shall always be in my heart…forever

River-rafting : Rishikesh
        Just like bungee jumping, river rafting deserves a separate write up. It was the first time I had dipped in the holiest river. The Ganges. The water was clear, cold and tasty. We rented two boats for rafting with eight members in each of them. Life jackets and rafting lessons later , off we went , up and down those roaring tides chanting war cries and posing for cameras which we could  not see but were promised that pics will be clicked from different strategic locations. All was well until the river decided to turn crazy. And in a matter of seconds I found myself gasping for breath under the boat. The boat had overturned throwing away everyone in the boat. For some strange reason , I did not panic. Cool-ly made my way out from under the boat, lifejacket pushed me up and I was able to breathe again. The only task to do was to hold on the boat. One by one everyone was pulled back to safety. Only then we realised one of the members was floating aimlessly somewhere far away. Since I was not wearing spectacles, I could not make out who it was. She was eventually rescued by some other boat though. All is well. And after sometime we jumped back to river. On purpose. There was no tide. Just a calm river.. Holding on to the boat , half swimming until we reached a tea-break spot where we had  heavily overpriced tea ( drank without asking price and had to pay the price). There was a spot where people would jump from fifteen feet. It was scary at first but eventually had to do it coz I did not want to miss that experience. Most of our gang jumped. Two of them who knew swimming were on guard. In water. Just in case. I can safely say this mini-jump definitely helped me to  gain enough courage for bungee jumping.

Haridwar-> Delhi
    Rishikesh to Haridwar on that vehicle where we saw a lot of wedding processions.The driver narrated tales of how is friend managed to get a Japanese girl-friend.
Night train.I don't remember anything about this train journey. Slept. Woke up in Delhi.

New Delhi : Round 2
Two unexpected things happened.
        For the first time I saw a hotel without ventilation. If anyone investigated it  would be closed immediately citing health and safety. Also some random empty room was given to freshen up !!
And then I got the tour of  Rashtrapati Bhawan . If it was not for the awesome trip organizers I would have missed this awesome opportunity. Guard change ceremony was attended.
The guided tour was great. Felt important for the first time however brief that time was. Bought some merchandise and off we went to India gate.
        Found some Madras canteen where there was a huuuuuuuuuuge queue for lunch. Sitting at random places and having unlimited meals while other hungry people waited for us to finish fast and give way.. High pressure situation.    I must say I was quite disappointed with this. In television the area looked different but there it looked much different. Huge crowd dampened the spirit more. 

Evening :
Akshardham
Everything you expected from such a place.Spacious, grand and beautiful . The light/laser show was the icing on the cake.

Chandni Chowk :
The chat street of Chandni Chowk was explored. All varieties of Rotis was had. I was afraid that I might never get to see the red fort. So that night went to see it from outside.

Last day of the trip:
Breakfast at Haldirams is a must mention.
Then we went to visit the Red fort. Cannot believe the area surrounding it is so shabbily maintained. Red-fort and other places inside were seen in a hurry and then we dashed back to hotel.

Everything was as planned till now. What we miscalculated was the time taken to reach the airport.
Only when we were on the metro we realized how much short of time we were. And this led to the most ultimate luggage carrying marathon of my life. From metro to the airport.
Sixteen people ran at breakneck speed carrying our heavy luggage, pushing,pulling, jumping. The back was breaking, legs gave up but we just could not stop.
The airlines had to arrange a separate counter just for us so that we make in time.
And we did just in time to be able to buy an overpriced burger and get into the plane.
Everyone seated in middle-seat in a straight line because that's what we got for not checking in earlier.

And then we landed in Bengaluru. 
The end.


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